Rhythm Workshop: The Art of the Shuffle

There’s a lot more to the art of the shuffle than first meets the ear.
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Consider the humble shuffle rhythm. We establish a tempo and pedestrian beat, divide each beat into threes (triplets), play the first and last hits of each one, apply this rhythm to a 12-bar blues progression, and we’re off and running. But there’s a lot more to the art of the shuffle than first meets the ear.

Ex. 1a manifests the above method using alternating A5 and A6 chords to establish a typical one-bar I-chord rhythm figure. Examples 1b and 1c transpose the same figure to two different string groups to cover the IV and V chords (D and E, respectively). Both examples also utilize the “shorthand” method for notating shuffled eighth-notes via the inclusion of a two-eighths-equals-an-eighth-notetriplet (minus its second hit) indicator placed above the staff, which indicates that all written eighth-notes are to be played as shuffle eighths.

Some shuffles, such as Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk” (featuring Billy Butler on guitar), broke these root+5 and root+6 dyads into single notes by arpeggiating each one either lowto- high or high-to-low as shown in Ex. 2a. Ex. 2b adds a third root+b7 dyad to the mix on beat three.

Jumping back to the previous rhythm figure, Ex. 3a offers the first of three subtle variations on Ex. 1a. Here, we replace the second A6 hit in beats two and four with a premature return to A5. Ex. 3b features a pair of root+ b7 chords in place of beat three’s A5, and Ex. 3c blends this addition with the same chord pattern as Ex. 3a. Transpose each example to the IV and V chords and have at it.

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In Texas-style shuffles, the emphasis is placed on the shuffled eighth-note upbeats as illustrated in Ex. 4a. Another option is filling in the downbeats with a single-note walking bass line like the one in Ex. 4b. The chord library in Ex. 5 presents a small collection of shuffle-ready I-, IV-, and V-chord voicings that can be incorporated into these or any of the following examples. (Tip: Though we’re limiting this installment to chords, keep in mind all of these rhythms also work with single- note figures.)

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Not every shuffle rhythm utilizes every eighth-note. The sparse figure in Ex. 6a thins things out by employing just two hits per bar—the one and the (shuffled) and of beat two. Ex. 6b cuts the first hit short, extends the second one for an extra beat, and adds a third hit on beat four. The next variation in Ex. 6c omits the last hit but adds one on beat two. Finally, Ex. 6d combines all three of these variations. Play each example exclusively through a 12-bar blues progression, and then start mixing and matching them in various combinations.

So what’s the deal with that “invisible” middle (second) note lurking within each triplet? Thus far, all of these rhythms have been based on the first and third eighth-notes in each beat. Ex. 7a demonstrates the rhythmic “hiccup” that occurs when we emphasize the first and second eighths by essentially playing backwards shuffle-eighths. Ex. 7b tames its relentlessness by inserting forward shuffle- eighths on beats two and four, while Ex. 7c does so by moving them to beats one and three.

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Finally, what happens if we omit the first and the last hits of each “backwards” shuffle- eighth? Ex. 8a shows how this strategy would apply to Ex. 7c, and reveals what is essentially a pair of quarter-note triplets creating a three-against-two polyrhythm. (See last month’s When Rhythms Collide.) Ex. 8b is analogous to Ex. 7b with the hiccups on the first and third beats of each measure. Try dropping any of the last five rhythms into your next turnaround.